Some of the best times in my life have been spent at a library. It was the one place I could find silence, the freedom to take out umpteen books, and leave them on the table after skimming through a few pages, forget about the world outside and the state of my life in it.
I still run to libraries when I need my space—and yesterday I did just that. After a work-related meeting I decided to spend the entire afternoon and evening at the Singapore National library, at its big central division, which is home to one of the most diverse collections I’ve seen in a library so far.
I felt a little guilty, sitting at the reference section (I needed to look through one book, but nothing serious), working on my fiction while intermittently browsing through random books—maybe I was taking up the space that someone doing genuine research needed. I sat there long enough–till the time I realized all other seats were taken up, and then vacated mine—hoping an eager research scholar would take it up!
I walked out for a meal, came back, and headed to the lending section…deciding that some of the blocks in the story I was writing came from a lack of research. I needed to know a few facts before I could get on with my narration. I love the that this library lets you search its catalog on your phone—the catalog is on a free library wi-fi network. Having picked up the books I needed I went in search of a chair and found one at the far end, surrounded by about 20 other chairs in different clusters.
To say that the first book I picked up was an absorbing read would be to insult it–it talks about a hugely successful individual coping with multiple personality disorder–each of the 13 individual personalities inside him has a chapter in his/her voice. I finished it in the 8 hours I sat at the library, without much movement, and only the occasional glance around me.
It is this morning, when I look back on the evening that I remember what I saw in those glances, but did not register at the time: an old man sleeping, open-mouthed, behind a newspaper, a middle-aged-gap-toothed woman in a cheong-sam sitting with a book on feng-shui while fitting her small body cross-legged on a chair—apparently meditating, a young man in office attire with a laptop bag and headphones, dozing behind a book titled Sex after Fifty, a pair of schoolkids snogging behind one of the bookshelves (I thought the library had cameras and frowned on such activity, but apparently not), a woman of indeterminate age in heavy make-up sitting with a shoe magazine, periodically receiving low-beeping calls and repeating/ writing down dates and times in a breathy falsetto, while a hearing impaired young couple to my right kept up a sprightly conversation full of excited gesturing.
With all those images returning to me, I feel less guilty about hogging a seat I didn’t really need. Not because other people did it too, with lot less serious preoccupations than mine—but because watching this pantomime of unabashed humanity in a country known for its lifestyle governed by rules, that too at a strait-laced place like a library, was not only a treat for a writer like me, but could also be safely termed ‘research’.
When was the last time you spent a day at the library? How much of that time did you spend people-watching?